Three thousand people filled to capacity and 700 people watching on monitors in an overflow room at Cuyahoga County Community College Western Campus were treated to a short but stirring Springsteen performance Thursday, publicly endorsing President Obama for re-election.

Following local speakers including Congresswoman Betty Sutton, who’s up for reelection in November, President Bill Clinton took to the podium in a suit and tie and spoke for about 45 minutes. Then, returning to the stage two minutes after he left, this time in rolled-up sleeves and with the jacket long gone, he said simply: “I wrote a book on jobs, and I thought about it, I had 20-some jobs before becoming President… but this is the first time in my life I ever got to be the warm-up act for Bruce Springsteen!”

Playing off of the high energy palpable throughout the crowd, packed in the recreation center like sardines, Springsteen took the stage in a denim work shirt and his usual dark stage jeans, with his distinctive cackle and a joke, signifying the casual mood for the rest of the show: “I called the E Street Band backstage, and said I may need backup —getting to speak after President Clinton is like going on after Elvis! If only he had brought that saxophone…”

Instead, Springsteen performed solo, a seven-song set on acoustic guitar and harmonica. An energetic “No Surrender” was first up, played at a faster clip then usual, before Springsteen spoke from the heart about why he is supporting the President and encouraging others to do the same. Along with being thankful that GM is still making cars (“What else would I write about?!” ) he specifically noted universal health care, a more regulated Wall Street, women’s rights and the protection of Roe v. Wade, as well as concerns about the widening disparity in wealth among our citizens:

That’s a disparity that I believe our honorable opponents’ policies will only increase and that threatens to divide us into two distinct and foreign nations, until many of us are going to end up like a song I wrote in the 1980s, “Jackson Cage”: “just the scenery in another man’s play.” If we marginalize so many of our citizens, their talents, their energies, their voices will go unfound and unheard. We will lose their contributions to this great land of ours; we will impoverish ourselves and set ourselves on the road to decline. So their opportunities must be protected, and I think President Obama understands this.

Wrapping up his stump speech and moving toward the second song, “The Promised Land,” Springsteen quoted his own “Long Walk Home,” from 2007’s Magic: “I believe [Obama] has got the strength, the commitment, and the vision… to carry the standard forward toward a country where, as I’ve written, ‘nobody crowds you, and nobody goes it alone.'”

After “Promised Land,” still in a relaxed mood, Springsteen said that “occasionally I get a call from the President, with various things to discuss. Last week, he said, ‘Bruce, I don’t have a campaign song! Mitt Romney, some country guy wrote a song for him, but me, nothing!’” So Bruce introduced a short, whimsical song he wrote for this occasion, based on Obama’s re-election campaign slogan: “Forward.” The lyrics included such couplets as, “Smilin’ Joe he really brought the drama / Tuesday, Romney got schooled by Obama,” referring to the recent debates; he instructed the crowd to chant Obama’s slogan, “Forward!” after each line. And chant they did, nearly overpowering Springsteen himself.

It was all in fun, and played for laughs — he made sure to note that the phone calls from the President were a joke — but soon the setlist took a more serious turn, straight into a tight and well-rehearsed “Youngstown,” set right here in Ohio. Particularly notable was the lyrical update to an already powerful verse, as Bruce sang, “we gave our sons to Korea and Vietnam… and Iraq… and Afghanistan.”

The highlight of the afternoon performance was next, with a rearranged, acoustic (for the first time ever) version of the Wrecking Ball single, “We Take Care of our Own.” The song carried special meaning in a crowd of politicos and middle-class Ohio voters, especially with Bruce introducing it as a “question for our American system — I pose this song as a question.” The song concluded with the crowd repeating the two-line chorus, “We take care of our own / wherever this flag’s flown” three times before Bruce strummed the G on the guitar to the outro.

In honor of “Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday,” next up was “This Land is Your Land,” complete with all the verses (Pete Seeger would be pleased), the crowd singing at their loudest yet over the last two choruses, and Bruce smiling broadly and reveling in the moment.

Bruce started a chant to “Vote, vote, vote,” before simply saying that, “I hope this kind of says it all, my hopes, my wishes, my dreams,” into the familiar harmonica intro of an inspired version of “Thunder Road.” This may tie for “We Take Care” as highlight of the rally — the crowd ate it up, happy to join in on the wordless sing-along at the end, the loudest they’d been all day.

The crew quickly packed up the gear and headed for Iowa, where Bruce would be playing another rally in just a couple of hours. If anyone can do it, Bruce can — after all, he’s in the business of moving us “forward.”

- Brandon Shaw, backstreets.com